Impact & Opinions | Tionchar & Tuairimí

The concept of vulnerability in the quest for equality

The concept of vulnerability in the quest for equality

29 April 21
 | 12 MINS

Professor Niamh Reilly asks us to reconsider the starting point for dealing with the question of equality and associated issues in modern society.

I caught a tremendous fish and held him beside the boat half out of water … He didn't fight. He hadn't fought at all. He hung a grunting weight, battered and venerable …  

Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Fish” beautifully subverts conventional hierarchical power.  It culminates in a refusal to enact the ultimate form of domination, giving us instead the joyful release of the caught fish who Bishop never allows to become “other” – a step which would be the precondition of his easy destruction.

Rather, the fish is cast as a fellow traveller in life and a survivor of the injuries and violence that it too often entails. Throughout the poem, Bishop assiduously disrupts the binary thinking that invokes the “other” – tellingly, the fish is “battered and venerable” rather than vulnerable. The narrator “looked into his eyes”, signalling empathy. Despite the profoundly unequal power relations in which the fish is situated vis-à-vis the narrator, from the opening line the “the tremendous fish” is always the subject of deep respect.

The meaning of vulnerability is entwined with hierarchical ideas about power and agency; when we think about the act of recognising another as vulnerable, it is difficult to separate this out from an idea of a more powerful, active subject behaving benevolently toward a weaker, passive other.

From this perspective, talk about vulnerability appears to go against the grain of efforts to achieve equality. And yet, “protecting the vulnerable” is now embedded in contemporary progressive liberal discourse.

In recent decades, international obligations on states to meet the needs of “vulnerable groups” have grown steadily and become a significant source of pressure on governments to address different forms of discrimination, inequality and social exclusion.

Unequal access to societal structures, privilege and power diminishes resilience and this should be the focus of social policy.

Social, political and legal theorists have attempted to address this apparent paradox in different ways. All begin with a critique of highly individualist liberal understandings of human freedom.

The conventional liberal paradigm equates freedom with individual autonomy understood as independence from others and the absence of restraint, that is, “negative freedom”. A long line of critics has roundly debunked this notion of the self-sufficient individual since its first articulation.

Against social Darwinism, Emile Durkheim, viewed it as a damaging and mistaken idea that failed to comprehend the fundamentally cooperative nature of the social world. For Karl Marx the valorisation of the atomistic individual did not express universal human freedom but the interests of the dominant capitalist class. Feminists from Iris Marion Young to Judith Butler have exposed the gendered and able-bodied privilege behind the myth of the self-sufficient individual; only those who never experienced powerful societal and personal expectations of their orientation to the care of others, or daily exclusion from a world constructed by the “able-bodied”, could imagine the self-sufficient individual as a universal ideal of “human freedom”.

In The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois, pioneer of American sociology, demonstrates how mutually respectful, meaningful interaction between black and white people is vital to amelioration of the harms of institutionalised racism. That is, group and individual freedom are interrelated and both require the creation of conditions of peaceful social interaction across difference.

Contemporary vulnerability theorists call on us to think differently about the human condition, relationships among individuals and social institutions, and the nature of human freedom.

Instead of the liberal autonomous individual, Martha Fineman begins with an assumption of universal human vulnerability, based on the fact that “as embodied beings, individual humans find themselves dependent upon and embedded within social relationships and institutions throughout the life course.” She rejects approaches that classify particular groups as “more vulnerable”, which she believes stigmatises those individuals.

Rather, governments have a responsibility to foster resilience among every section of society. Resilience is acquired through engagement with various social institutions. But unequal access to societal structures, privilege and power diminishes resilience and this should be the focus of social policy.

Specifically, Fineman calls for “systemic vulnerability analysis”, to examine the adequacy of social institutions, rather than a potentially pathologising focus on “vulnerable groups”. For Fineman, this also means rejecting “identity politics”, which she sees as contrary to the central premise of universal vulnerability.

Fineman’s dismissal of “identity politics” is problematic, however, because it fails to appreciate that collective action against injustices experienced by discriminated-against groups necessarily has significant identity-based dimensions, which are also an important source of resilience, evidenced by the Black Lives Matter movement, for example.

Critical theorists Axel Honneth and Joel Anderson combine the premise of universal vulnerabilty with an expanded understanding of full autonomy, “recognitional autonomy”, which also affirms identify-based claims.  Recognitional autonomy requires acquisition and maintenance of “self-respect, self-trust, and self-esteem”, which are “fragile achievements” that are always vulnerable to different forms of injury.

In response, social policy in a liberal polity must extend well beyond negative freedom to actively build essential “supportive recognitional infrastructure” to counter universal vulnerability and repair specific forms of recognitional injury that undermine the autonomy of different groups in society.

When analysing “conditions that threaten life”, poststructuralist thinker Judith Butler prefers the concept of precarity to vulnerability. Precarity describes “politically induced condition[s] in which certain populations suffer from failing social and economic networks of support and become differentially exposed to injury, violence and death.”

Butler has in mind refugees and migrants excluded from state-level protections available to citizens, as well as marginalised groups within nation-states who live precarious lives because they “do not sufficiently conform to the norms that confer recognizability on subjects.”

From this perspective, action oriented to the achievement of equality and social justice must always interrogate how prevailing norms condition “who will count as a subject and who will not.” Only to the extent that the concept of vulnerability is deployed in such interrogation, to challenge and not reinforce unequal power relations and stigmatisation – to the extent that it also contains the idea of the deeply respected, venerable subject – does it have the potential to contribute to the achievement of equality.


Anderson, J., and Honneth, A., (2005) “Autonomy, Vulnerability, Rcognition and Justice” in Christman and Anderson (eds) Autonomy and the Challenges to Liberalism: New Essays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi: 10.1017/CBO9780511610325.

Butler, J. (2009) “Performativity, Precarity and Sexual Politics”, AIBR Revista de Antropologia Iberiamericano 4:3, pp. i-xiii. Madrid: Antropologia Iberiamericano en Red. ISSN: 1695-9752.

Dubois, W.E.B. (1994 [1903]) The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Dover Publications.

Fineman, M. A. (2017) “Vulnerability and Inevitable Inequality”, Oslo Law Review 4:3, 133-149.


0 / 5. Vote count: 0

Discover More
SDG Champion

Focal ón Uachtarán

Keep up to date on the latest from us straight to your inbox

Privacy policy